top of page
  • Writer's picturemww

Abraham's Journey of Faith Begins -- a study of Genesis 12 and 13

Updated: Feb 4

There is always a first step when we step out in faith.


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 12 and 13

In this most important of passages in Genesis, we begin to learn God's plan to undo the curse of Adam -- it involves a man from Mesopotamia named Abram. This story would have been critical to the early Hebrews in learning about the Promised Land, but it's equally critical to Christians today in learning what it means to have faith in God.

16 I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth.


When We Studied This Passage in 2015

I covered a lot of topics in my 2015 post that I'm only going to hint at this week:

I cover so much else below that I don't really have the space to repeat much. If you're interested in any of those topics, please skim through that 2015 post.


Getting Started: Things to Think About

The Most Influential Person in History.

As you might guess, somebody has written a book on this topic.

That book was controversial for putting Jesus third on the list behind Muhammad and Isaac Newton. And yes, even if you have an axe to grind, ranking Jesus anywhere other than the most influential person in history is objectively dumb. But setting that aside, I think it's a fun topic to consider.


You might have to give yourself a boundary like who is the most influential person who has lived in the last 100 years?


Anyway, the point would be to set us up to appreciate the incredible influence of Abraham, a man claimed as a pillar of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Just astounding.


Stepping Out in Faith

This might be a time to share some testimonies. Shelly and I felt the call to ministry/missions not long after we got married. Then we found out that Shelly was pregnant -- and Micah was due about a week before seminary classes were going to begin. So, that was exciting. It never crossed our mind that we should consider waiting a year or two before quitting our jobs and moving to seminary, so we went anyway. And that first year was difficult on many levels. But we never went hungry, and we never lacked for friends. That process repeated itself when I felt the call to go back to school in Fort Worth, and again when we considered the call to come to Thomson.


How about you? What are times you had to exercise a great deal of faith in making a decision? Were you ever tempted to turn back after you had made it?


When Googling this topic, I found this incredible post title:

I don't have anything against Mickey, and I understand that you do what you can to get eyeballs on your blog (it worked on me!), but let me be clear that if there are tips to make stepping out in faith easy, then it's not faith. "Faith" is what we will read out this week -- God calling Abraham to follow Him but not saying where.


There's nothing easy about stepping out in faith. This week's passage is going to encourage us to do it anyway -- not because it's easy, but because we have faith in God.

 

Side Note: This Week's "Big Idea" is going to be a deeper look into God's promise to Abraham, but I'm going to cover that in the lesson itself.

 

Where We Are in Genesis

Chapter 12 begins a new major section in Genesis where the focus shifts to a single family. This will be of great interest to Moses' original audience -- it's the story of where they came from! These chapters tell the early Hebrews some very critical things:

  • Why they're traveling to Canaan;

  • Why it's called the "Promised Land";

  • Why they're divided into twelve tribes;

  • How they became slaves in Egypt.

It's truly foundational knowledge for the Hebrew people.


Here's the always-useful summary of the book from the Bible Project.


For my part, their "Torah Series" video on Genesis 12-50 makes the major themes easier to see and understand:


Genesis Outline:

  1. Early History (1:1-11:26)

  2. Focus on Abraham (11:27-25:18)

  3. Focus on Isaac (25:19-36:43)

  4. Focus on Joseph (37:1-50:26)


All of our February lessons focus on Abraham. And in fact, I'm going to punt on some of the topics we will see this week because they will be covered more thoroughly in one of these upcoming lessons.


Introducing Abraham

We meet Abraham (called "Abram" at this point in the story; "Abram" means "exalted father" and "Abraham" means "father of many") by way of his father, Terah, who was a descendant of Shem. Terah lived in Ur, where Abraham heard a call from God. Genesis 11 makes it seem as if Terah was the one who set out for Canaan but died along the way in Haran, but Stephen (in his sermon before the Sanhedrin) clarifies what happened.

2 “Brothers and fathers,” he replied, “listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he settled in Haran, 3 and said to him: Leave your country and relatives, and come to the land that I will show you. (Acts 7)

Even if it were Terah's suggestion, God told Abraham to go -- this would become very important when Terah died and Abraham might be tempted to stay or even go back.


Why put things in this order in Genesis? Out of respect for the patriarchy -- Moses brought Terah's story to completion before turning the focus to Abraham.


[Aside: a fun language fact -- Abraham took a wife whose name was Sarai, meaning "princess". His brother Nahor took a wife whose name was Milcah, meaning "Queen". (I'm going to guess that this was an occasional sore spot.) Local gods also had names related to the words for "Princess" and "Queen", but that doesn't really have anything to do with anything, so don't get sidetracked if you discover that in your research.]


This map shows what they call the "traditional route" for Abraham's journey, and it also shows a common point of debate: where was "Ur of the Chaldeans"? As far as archeologists know, Chaldeans didn't exist as a defined people group before ~1,000 BC. Abraham lived ~2,000 BC. The most common explanation or this is that Jewish scribes added this phrase when recompiling the Torah in order to clarify which Ur Abraham came from.


Terah's family was clearly wealthy -- possessing flocks and herds and servants. Is that why God chose Abraham? Because he was wealthy? Clearly not -- we will talk about Abraham's desire for righteousness in the weeks to come. However, this led some Jews to associate wealth with God's favor (and even righteousness), a problem that Jesus had to confront.

 

Part 1: A Call to Step Out in Faith (Genesis 12:1-5a)

The Lord said to Abram: Go from your land, your relatives, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, I will curse anyone who treats you with contempt, and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you. So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran. He took his wife, Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated, and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan.

As many biblical scholars have said, it would be impossible to overstate the importance of these verses for all of human history. This is where we finally begin to see God's rescue plan for humanity play out.


This is very similar to something God said in the hearing of Moses' audience:

The Lord spoke to Moses: “Go up from here, you and the people you brought up from the land of Egypt, to the land I promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying: I will give it to your offspring. (Ex 33:1)

What's the difference between Gen 12:1 and Ex 33:1? God told Moses where they were going. God didn't tell Abraham where he was going. That's what makes this such a powerful illustration of faith.


Think about that for a moment. Abraham clearly didn't know a whole lot about God when God called him. God had to teach Abraham just about everything. And Abraham chose to listen and believe what God said -- leave his home, not know where he was going. This might be where you have your "stepping out in faith" discussion.


God only makes the one demand of Abraham: "go" -- everything else is a promise.


The Lifeway material has a good summary of covenants in the Ancient Near East as well as God's covenant with Abraham. Covenants were a common social and diplomatic tool in the region, used to mediate disputes, strengthen ties, or govern peoples. The covenant with Abraham is often classified a "suzerainty treaty" -- made between a king and his subjects (what the king would do for the people, and what the people were expected to do for the king). New kings commonly initiated such a covenant in a region.


God's covenants with His people were unique in that God made far more promises than demands of the people. (Plus, as God, His promises far exceeded anything made in other treaties.) Let's dive into those promises.


The Old Testament contains repeated promises of what He will give:

  • A land / home

  • A people / nation / family

  • A God / blessing / identity

Compare this with what God said to Moses a few hundred years later:

6 “Therefore tell the Israelites: I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from the forced labor of the Egyptians and rescue you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and great acts of judgment. 7 I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from the forced labor of the Egyptians. 8 I will bring you to the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you as a possession. I am the Lord.” 9 Moses told this to the Israelites, but they did not listen to him because of their broken spirit and hard labor. (Ex 6)

We will go into much more details about God's covenant with Abraham in a few weeks when we study chapter 17. For now, let's just focus on God's promises in Gen 12:2-3:

I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, I will curse anyone who treats you with contempt, and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.

Great Nation, Great Name. This would have certainly had an impact on Moses' original audience -- God was talking about them! God was going to take them to a land and turn them into a great nation. What a promise to hear! But we can also pull the curtain of history back even further to see that three major groups of people -- Jews, Muslims, and Christians -- all trace themselves to Abraham. God fulfilled this promise to Abraham in ways unimaginable to Abraham.


The bigger thing to catch is the "great name" comment. Let's go back to last week:

Come, let’s build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky. Let’s make a name for ourselves; otherwise, we will be scattered throughout the earth. (Gen 11:4)

I wonder if you noticed this: Genesis is stuffed full of names. There is only one story in, well, all of Genesis that doesn't have any names in it. The story of the tower of Babel.


Let me quote my 2015 post:

What I find most amazing about these words is the explicit rejection of everything “Babel”. What did they want? To stay together, find safety in family, and work together to create something that will make them famous. What did God actually want of them? To focus on Him, trust and rely on Him, and allow God to make their name great.

I Will Bless You. You Will Be a Blessing. Once again, we have to look back. What did Adam awaken to? God placed him in a beautiful garden. God gave him a wife and the blessing to be fruitful. And God gave him dominion over everything around him. And then Adam blew it. So with Abraham, we have a resetting of this blessing: God will give Abraham a wonderful home, descendants beyond count, and an exalted name among the nations.


The bigger question is what it means for Abraham to "be a blessing". My NET Bible points out the syntactical parallels with Zechariah 8:13 --

13 As you have been a curse among the nations, house of Judah and house of Israel, so I will save you, and you will be a blessing.

God didn't curse the world through Judah; rather, Judah served to the world an example of what it meant to be cursed by God. Likewise, to "be a blessing" would mean that Judah would serve to the world as an example of what it meant to be blessed by God. I think that's what's going on in Genesis 12:2 -- Abraham (and his descendants) would show the world what it looks like to be in right relationship with God. Moses used this idea when he encouraged the Jews to remain faithful to God in the future. We studied that back in 2020 when we studied Deuteronomy.

And what great nation has righteous statutes and ordinances like this entire law I set before you today? (Deut 4:8)

The Hebrew nation would show the world the One True God, and through their witness, the rest of the world would desire also to be in right relationship with Him. (They also blew it, but let's set that aside for the moment.) And I think that's what we're supposed to understand the most controversial part of this promise to mean.


Bless Those Who Bless You(?). I don't have to tell you that this passage has somehow become a major diplomatic driver for America's relationship with the nation of Israel. I personally believe very strongly that America should support Israel in its struggle for continued existence -- but I don't point to this verse as a reason why. Many people treat this verse as a kind of causal manipulation ("if we do this, then God must do that"); I shouldn't have to tell that that that's not how God works.


Rather, we should see this in the context of Abraham being a blessing to the world by demonstrating how people can be in a right relationship with God. That actually makes this illustration rather straightforward:

  • Those who enrich Abraham or desire a relationship with him will by extension share in God's blessings to Abraham.

  • Those who downplay Abraham's favored status (the word for "curse" more literally means "treat lightly") by definition want nothing to do with God's favor.

So, this has less to do with Abraham than it does Abraham's God. Those who reject Abraham are actually rejecting God, and they will never share in God's blessings.


Here's the wrinkle for us -- in the New Covenant, Christians are now the "spiritual heirs" of Abraham through faith in Christ. ("There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth in that place, when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but yourselves thrown out." Luke 13:28)

13 For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would inherit the world was not through the law, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 14 If those who are of the law are heirs, faith is made empty and the promise nullified, 15 because the law produces wrath. And where there is no law, there is no transgression.
16 This is why the promise is by faith, so that it may be according to grace, to guarantee it to all the descendants—not only to the one who is of the law but also to the one who is of Abraham’s faith. He is the father of us all. 17 As it is written: I have made you the father of many nations—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, the one who gives life to the dead and calls things into existence that do not exist. (Rom 4:13-17)

(Whatever you do, don't let the song "Father Abraham" get stuck in your head.)


Paul makes it clear that God still has plans for the Jews -- but even that shouldn't have to be the "reason" to desire to help the people of Israel exercise their right to exist. I think the more appropriate application of this passage would be to help defend persecuted Christians around the world. American doesn't have the cleanest record with that. Nigeria comes to mind --

So, yes, this topic can potentially become very political, and I will leave it to your group to be responsible enough to keep the focus on this week's passage. Pull statecraft out of it: what does this mean to you on an individual level?


All the Peoples on Earth will be Blessed through You. With that clarification of what it means to "be a blessing", this should now make good sense. It's not that the peoples will be "blessed vicariously" through Abraham. But rather, through Abraham, the peoples will learn how they can be rightly related to God.


Let's use the parent-child illustration. A parent being a Christian doesn't make a child a Christian. "My mom is a Christian" will not get anyone into heaven, so to speak. But a parent raising a child in a Christian home exposes that child to the truth of the gospel and puts that child in a better place to choose for themself to follow Jesus.


Abraham is the man whom God decided to reveal to the world His plan to rescue them from the eternal consequences of their sin. And more fully, God chose Abraham's family to be the one into which He would send His Son Jesus.


Nothing more important has ever been announced in human history.


Abraham believed God, and he took his family to Canaan.


[Current Events Aside: I've talked about the conflict in the Middle East multiple times in the past few months, so I don't know about bringing it up yet again, but that conflict can more or less be traced back to this passage.]

 

In the Meantime

We skip over a depressing but very important passage. Abraham ends up in Egypt where he lies to Pharaoh in order to save his own skin. This is some very important foreshadowing on many levels, not the least of which is the fallibility of God's chosen people.


If you have time, I'd love for you list all of the parallels between Abraham's family's trip to Egypt (12:10-20) and Jacob's family's extended trip to Egypt.


One parallel (spoilers) is that Abraham came out of Egypt far greater than when he entered. This became a problem when his entourage made it back to Canaan. 13:7 sets up the problem:

and there was quarreling between the herdsmen of Abram’s livestock and the herdsmen of Lot’s livestock. (At that time the Canaanites and the Perizzites were living in the land.)

Because Abraham was bringing a large group into an already-populated region, space and resources were a bit tight. The mention of the Canaanites was also intended to set off alarm bells in Moses' audience -- if Abraham and Lot started causing too much trouble for each other, they would be vulnerable to easy pickings from their aggressive neighbors.

 

Part 2: Trouble Foreshadowed (Genesis 13:11-13)

11 So Lot chose the entire plain of the Jordan for himself. Then Lot journeyed eastward, and they separated from each other. 12 Abram lived in the land of Canaan, but Lot lived in the cities on the plain and set up his tent near Sodom. 13 (Now the men of Sodom were evil, sinning immensely against the Lord.)

If you've ever wondered what a peppy children's song about Abraham and Lot would sound like, wonder no longer! In my opinion, Lifeway reached "peak VBS music status" in the early 2000s. One of their songs in 2003's "Great Kingdom Caper" was about Abraham and Lot. A very quirky song, and I can't find it on YouTube. But Apple Music still has the album available for purchase. The free preview of the song "H 'n G" has the verse in question:


Lot chose to go east into the region of the Jordan River valley, a lush place. I'm too lazy to create my own map, so here's a map from online that has a common interpretation of where the two men went. To be clear, historians disagree about the location of Sodom. Some put it on the north side of the Dead Sea. (And note that this would have been before the Dead Sea died.) The point is that Lot chose to settle near the town of Sodom -- a place filled with very wicked people.


We will talk more about Sodom in a few weeks!


This was not a problem for Abraham -- God promised him the land of Canaan, and God would bless Abraham wherever he settled.


I think your discussion here is about choices. How do you choose between multiple options? This might be what job do I take? what church do I join? what city do I move to? what school do I attend?

  • What are the clues that might warn us away from the wrong choice?

  • What are the clues that might steer us toward the right choice?

To be sure, there's not often an obvious qualifier like "the men of Sodom were evil". But Lot was also taken in by the fact that the region was so lush that it made him think of the Garden of Eden. Does the blessing outweigh the curse?


But furthermore, there's not always a "right or wrong" choice. Sometimes both choices would be fine! How do you know when that's the case?

 

Part 3: God's Promise to Abraham (Genesis 13:14-18)

14 After Lot had separated from him, the Lord said to Abram, “Look from the place where you are. Look north and south, east and west, 15 for I will give you and your offspring forever all the land that you see. 16 I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust of the earth, then your offspring could be counted. 17 Get up and walk around the land, through its length and width, for I will give it to you.” 18 So Abram moved his tent and went to live near the oaks of Mamre at Hebron, where he built an altar to the Lord.

One of my favorite songs as a new Christian in the late 90s was Rich Mullins's "Sometimes by Step" -- ("O God, You are my God and I will ever praise You")

Such a wonderfully earnest song. The second verse is most germane --

Sometimes I think of Abraham, How one star he saw had been lit for me. He was a stranger in this land, And I am that, no less than he. And on this road to righteousness, Sometimes the climb can be so steep; I may falter in my steps, But never beyond Your reach.

We will get into the "star" imagery in next week's passage, but for my part, I want us to be thinking about the "falter in my steps" image. You might have used the "step out in faith" idea as a discussion topic. For all of the journeying Abraham has already done, we're still closer to the beginning of this journey than the end. There has already been some faltering, and there will be much more to come.


And yet with all of the failures in Abraham's future, we still have the rest of what Paul wrote in Romans 4:

18 He believed, hoping against hope, so that he became the father of many nations according to what had been spoken: So will your descendants be. 19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body to be already dead (since he was about a hundred years old) and also the deadness of Sarah’s womb. 20 He did not waver in unbelief at God’s promise but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21 because he was fully convinced that what God had promised, he was also able to do. 22 Therefore, it was credited to him for righteousness. 23 Now it was credited to him was not written for Abraham alone, 24 but also for us. It will be credited to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.

If this is true for Abraham, how much more will it be true for us?


In our journey with God, even when we have stepped out in faith, we have faltered in our steps many times. But never have we faltered beyond His reach -- His mercy, His grace, and His forgiveness. That's not based on our worthiness of such mercy, but because we believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. It all comes back to Jesus.


Abraham believed in God's promise because He trusted God. And so do we. I hope this is a great encouragement to you this week!


Back to the passage.


This map moves Sodom further west (showing yet another possible location). What I like about the map is how it shows the elevation of Hebron -- a pretty good vantage point of the region. The Promised Land extends far to the north, and God instructed Abraham to walk through it all.


Abraham settled at a place called "Mamre" which is a short distance north of the traditional site of Hebron. Mamre was famous for its great oaks.

Here's a picture from Wikipedia taken in 1912 of a tree called "Abraham's Oak". It was ancient in 1912, and as you can imagine it's dead now, suffering from more than a little human interference. No, it could not have been from Abraham's day, but that was a popular story in the area.


Now it's important to remember this fact: Sarah was barren. Abraham was already 75 when he buried Terah in Haran. According to Genesis 11, the men became first-time fathers when they were in their early 30s. This is a double whammy against God's promise that Abraham's descendants would be like the dust of the earth. How is Abraham continuing to believe this promise?


Well, we talk more about that next week.


What are the promises from God you're having a hard time believing right now? How might Abraham's experience help you?


God told Abraham to "walk through the land" that He had promised him. And everywhere Abraham walked, he would build an altar to the Lord. I this is a little more abstract, but how might that exercise help you with whatever promise you're having trouble believing?

bottom of page